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I would like to take drum lessons but unfortunately my schedule doesn't permit it. I know there are many resources online but I'm not sure how long it'd take me to find an answer to my specific question, and Google searches have left me empty-handed so far.

When learning a new drum part, what is the correct way to learn—hand by hand (and foot by foot), integrating the complete "layers" after mastering each hand (and foot)?—or timeslice by timeslice, playing all the components at once, but in chunks of time? (Anticipating that there may be no one "correct" way, what are the qualities or detriments to learning in either fashion?)

So far, I've only been able to learn parts by breaking them down timeslice by timeslice. Mastering one hand or foot at a time seems to do nothing for me when I try to integrate the components together. I'm wondering if this is natural, or expected, and if expected, then whether there are benefits to forcing myself to learn the hard way regardless.

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3 Answers

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The short answer is both! The long answer is that any way you practice has to have a clear focused goal. When you practice something by itself(one hand or foot), what is the reason? If it's purely a matter of executing that single component, splitting it out by itself may be enough. But if coordination is the issue, then practicing individual items may not help. My suggestion is to play parts separately but sing some of the other parts while you do it. Example: play the kick part but use your voice to create the snare. It sounds a little silly, but the idea here is to keep the coordination aspects there while removing the technical portion of actually playing the other parts.

Also helpful for coordination is figuring out what the composite rhythm. What is the single rhythm that represents what your playing on the kit as a whole? Listen for that rhythm as you play instead of each part. It's all about making the pattern a single thing to conceptualize. As humans we are terrible at being able to conceptualize more than a single thing at a time.

Time slices are good too. Be sure to manipulate how long your slices are.

Generally speaking, for things that you're having trouble with, take a moment to think of half a dozen different ways to practice it that you think might help. Try them all! For me, half the fun of music is discovering which way of 'thinking' about something allows my body to execute it cleanly. It's rarely actually a technical issue.

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It's often a matter of finding the darn pattern. There are ridiculously complex drum patterns out there and not all of them are improvised. Even worse, they can be played again and again without missing a note which means, the piece is recorded inside the brain of the performer in a certain way.

This is basically the whole idea of drum practice. Finding that body motion that results with the desired outcome. Now you might think every beat can be broken down into its simple components. While being right you are missing out a big opportunity to enhance the control over the drumset. Example;

You want to play 3 over 4 kind of a polyrhythm. (Vinnie Colaiuta does this among many other incredible stuff towards the end of Seven Days by Sting). It's called polyryhthm but it's not that a crazy concept as it sounds. Some say it's polymeter but nevermind they are all names. What you want to play is 3 evenly spaced strokes with one hand and 2 evenly placed strokes with the other say in the same amount of time, say within one click of 60 bpm metronome. Playing evenly is very important otherwise it becomes pointless.

If you don't know this objective beforehand and directly start with the one-beat-at-a-time kind of practice, you would be going nuts to get the middle part of this beat because it's not that easy to time it exactly do to its non overlapping nature. Instead you can practice combining two beats while you are concentrating on each hand individually. Same goes Jazz samba ride cybal pattern or fast shuffles. This kind of thinking would provide you the opportunity to come up with remembering ways for beats for example go over the bar line. So as ecline6 mentions in the answer, the more tricks you have under your belt the better it is.

Two concrete examples of books that go completely opposite ways:

  1. Future Sounds by David Garibaldi. Includes many one beat at a time examples. Mostly discusses Linear Drumming.
  2. Conversations in Clave by Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez. The exercises are all about keeping a steady ostinato while trying to place beats in all possible positions etc.

P.S. David Garibaldi also offers the keep a steady ostinato and place kick/snare at all sixteenth note positions way of practice but the emphasis is on getting the groove beat by beat. I've enjoyed both of them for a long time. Nowhere close to playing like them but helped a lot.:)

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I'm afraid the only answer is that you should do what works for you. For many rhythms with lots of off-beats or interesting combinations of drums, you'll probably find the rhythm makes no sense at all (and thus is harder to learn) until you've played a phrase with all the 'parts'. But sometimes, you might find that even that is too hard to learn in one go, so you have to try, say, a two-bar repeating unit with just the bass drum and cymbals to start, and then add the snare drum to that, and then extend that to a whole eight-bar phrase (maybe with a fill in the final bar).

With practice, you'll find it easier to recognise by looking at the part (or by hearing it, if you're learning that way) what the components of it are that you need to learn together: maybe the bass drum and hi-hat go together with the snare drum separate, or maybe the hi-hat and snare drum are one unit, and you can add the bass drum afterwards. In jazz music, it's often the latter, but in marches and orchestral music, it's almost always the former. Of course, if you aren't yet very good at reading music, you may find you have to read each voice in the staff (i.e. each hand or foot) separately at first just to work out where the notes and rests are.

In summary: unless you have trouble reading the part to start with, usually if you just try to learn one 'hand' on its own, the rests will be awkward, so find a pair of voices that fit together and start with them. Learn one rhythm at a time, don't worry about the end-of-phrase fills until you have the main rhythm sorted, and take it slowly until you get confident.

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